8/10 My first movie was Jurassic Park, the unimpeachable knockout that single-handedly changed the course of American culture and cinematic history by being so terrific. As I sit down for The Fabelmans and gather my cynicism for the tail end of the legendary filmmaker’s career, unjustified as I know he hasn’t lost his touch, I wonder – would I be sitting here if it weren’t for Steven Spielberg?
Jan. 10, 1952, Haddon Township, New Jersey- Mitzi and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) take their son, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle and Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) to his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Enraptured, Sammy Fabelman immediately becomes a camera and film junkie, spending his childhood and teenage years filming everything he can and diving head-first into ingenious, cheap special effects artistry. Through this lens, he documents his family’s move to Arizona and then California, his parents’ divorce and his high school experience.
The man has not lost his touch. The Fabelmans carries the torch of that classic Spielberg wonder and magic, that perfect sense of timing, the consistently brilliant compositions and performances, lots of those subtle oners he’s known for and also that perfect adolescent tone. In all his films, but especially E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Poltergeist and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg approaches childhood as something you never really get over, a collection of emotions and events and patterns of behavior that bleed effortlessly into adult life. Now in his autobiography, it’s easy to see why.
This emotional approach has created some of the best, most heartfelt coming-of-age stories ever filmed, and this is another textbook example. The Fabelmans is light-years ahead of most coming-of-age stories, partially because it isn’t trying to be a coming-of-age story. Spielberg delves elbow-deep into the confusion and uncertainty of that time in his life, creating not a setup for a decades-long iconic film career, but a closed story. It sticks on its emotions and never feels like it’s rushing through anything. No cliché was ever anywhere near this movie. It is deeply, profoundly personal and specific, and it’s got a lot of specific things on its mind.
Spielberg expresses the magic of filmmaking in The Fabelmans perhaps more directly than he ever has, symbolized through the failing marriage of his artistic mother and scientific father, both of whom he must take after to pursue his hobby. As Sammy Fabelman’s childhood continues and his main conflicts evolve, his camera takes over as the film’s main character, with his personality and relationships playing out through its lens. It’s his and his siblings’ primary toy that enables all of their mischief and drives all their creativity, and of course it becomes a central part of his social circle as he grows up.
The film explores everything that goes into it from the filmmaker’s perspective and calls attention to all the different planning and problem-solving skills he’s developing, and because we never exit the backyard/yearbook film phase of his life, it explores how photography and art dictate personal relationships. Watching the film, I find myself forced into a staring match with how the things I make define my own relationships. Just about everyone who knows me views me through the lens of writing or photography.
The Fabelmans’ release was still rolling out over December when the Lensa app made artificially intelligent portraits a major fad for a week or so. I’d commissioned a portrait from an acquaintance a couple years ago that was a surreal thing to look at – I’ve fostered a very firm sense of identity and separation in my mind between what I think of myself and what other people think of me, but confronted with a highly stylized and fantastic image of myself, it’s hard to maintain that. This was someone who barely knew me, but has the skill to externalize her conception of me, not just telling me what she thinks but literally showing me myself through her eyes. Lensa took my selfies and processed back imagery of me as some kind of Soviet moviestar, and many people had a similar experience watching a clear thesis emerge from this machine. This must be how people feel when I publish photographs of them as well, the same kind of revelation.
In The Fabelmans, the camera is truth. It’s how Sammy Fabelman discovers his mother is cheating, and his framing of his classmates is ultimately the only way he communicates to them. That’s the intimate detail this film offers – it’s not about some wistful wish-wash about lost youth, it’s an interrogative film about the motives of a young filmmaker and the profound psychological impact of seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes.
It’s an exemplary exercise in the use of art to express while also questioning the self, and an excellent film.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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